Opera, ‘Elitism’ and Trickle-Down Culture

The Royal Opera House recently hosted two interesting events addressing the present state and future of opera. The first was a debate called ‘Are Opera and Ballet Elitist?’, held on 11th March and featuring a panel including Mark-Anthony Turnage and Katie Mitchell. The second was a half-day conference for new opera creators, co-hosted by Sound and Music, called ‘Stage Notes’. This latter event was interesting because it was interesting. The former event was interesting because it was terrible. However, for me, both ultimately fell short of addressing the most vital questions. As with all these things, I ended up frustrated by all the questions that were left unanswered, the glaring assumptions in operation, and the institutional/disciplinary ideology that went uncritiqued. So here’s a couple of posts giving (extensive) vent to my frustration…


‘The Big Question: Are opera and ballet elitist?’

Apparently not the big question but a big question, since this debate was part of an ongoing series; such a designation wouldn’t be surprising though, given the obsession that opera institutions, artists and critics seem to have with the ‘E’-word. At any rate, this was a minor abomination of an event, a craven show trial with obscenely overlong performance intermissions that amounted to blatant propaganda for the ROH’s outreach programmes. You can watch ‘highlights’ online here: WATCH HERE WATCH HERE

The panel was comprised of three artists who’d all worked at the ROH, and one author who had nothing to do with opera besides being quite articulate in her dislike of it. The author, Dreda Say Mitchell, was (I assume) also chosen because she works in a decidedly ‘populist’ genre – the crime thriller – and she comes from a black working-class background. Her voice and views were largely ignored throughout, not least by the terrible chairperson – Sarah Crompton – who mixed abject bias with a distracting nervousness. In between presentations from the ROH’s children’s choir and a ballet workshop, an advert for one of their current productions and a collage of awkward vox pops apparently collected from within a 100m radius of the ROH itself, the panel arrived quite quickly at the conclusion that opera and ballet are not elitist. Repeat: not elitist.

So there we go, problem solved, back to work everyone. Until next month, when we have to have another debate about whether opera is elitist, and come to the same conclusion, and (presumably) earn our Arts Council access credits for the year.

As ever, there was no attempt at all to define ‘elitism’, or explore the plurality of its implications in detail. This is a proven way to completely invalidate such debates, and makes for a very frustrating hour-and-a-half. All of the following possible definitions of elitism were brought into play at times, but they were constantly conflated and confused, with the ‘disproving’ of one effectively ‘disproving’ them all:

  • enjoyed by a socio-economic ‘elite’ (‘high class’)
  • made by a socio-economic ‘elite’
  • made for a socio-economic ‘elite’
  • involves/requires specialist knowledge which is safeguarded and withheld
  • uses a specialist language which is withheld, or which is taxing to interpret without education
  • cultivates a specialist language which is purposefully hard for most people to interpret
  • purposefully/circumstantially cultivates an ‘exclusive’ atmosphere of specialist knowledge/ritual
  • purposefully/circumstantially cultivates an ‘exclusive’ atmosphere of upper-class signifiers and decadence
  • purposefully/circumstantially too expensive to be consumed by most people
  • ascribes itself/has been ascribed particular cultural importance/relevance/quality over and above other art forms (‘high art’)
  • requires special skills/training/qualities to create and perform
  • requires refined taste and aesthetic judgement to appreciate, or appreciate properly

There was the normal procession of bugbears which were picked off, shrugged off or ‘disproved’ with the normal mixture of paternalism, Romanticism and cautious conservatism:

– Too expensive.
– £10 student standbys!
– High vs. low culture?
– Reverse snobbery!
– Needs education.
-Start early!
– Why opera?
– Emotion! Childlike wonder! Beauty!
– Contemporary music?
– Decline of attention spans. Reality TV!
– Change it? Make it more accessible?
– Worth protecting! Resist the lowest common denominator!
– It’s all just an ‘image’.
– Let’s have a debate and stream it on the internet.

In this way, every possible ‘problem’ with opera can apparently be answered by following the example of the Royal Opera House itself, thereby ‘proving’ that there’s absolutely no logical reason why the chastised masses shouldn’t be pouring into every show, or at the very least transferring the blame to the people themselves (‘it’s in their minds!’), or state education policy.

Opera is Elitist

The obvious problem of such conclusions, their brazen irrationality, is that they beg the question as to why the debate is necessary in the first place. If opera ‘isn’t elitist’, as we’ve so objectively, empirically concluded, then why is the question so totally omnipresent in discourse about the art form. It must all be some massive misunderstanding, a case of mistaken identity in the popular consciousness. The only conclusion can be that all of society/culture has misapprehended the true nature of what opera ‘is’ (i.e. universal, not elitist), apart from a select few who actually go to the opera and understand the importance (and universality) of the art form.

Is this not the essence of what is called ‘elitism’? The delusion that they – the minority – are totally right, and that everyone else – the majority – are totally mistaken, that they have failed to understand, that opera is not elitist and therefore they must be completely wrong, and that such a conclusion can be established in an internal debate among ROH-affiliated artists?

The Dream of Cultural Communism

I have to say, I’m not onboard with the whole ‘elitism’ debate myself. I think the term is a calculated repression of real class politics, and it reifies culture in the most pernicious way. Nobody in opera talks about class, that would be disastrous. Equally, the discussions of culture and class in this country have a particular character at the moment, in line with much of our neoliberal-, ‘creative capitalism’-infused ideology (see Grayson Perry’s work on class, taste and consumption, and also that BBC/LSE class calculator that’s been doing the rounds). My take is that, when we talk about elitism and ‘Culture’ (the capitalised version, with all its implications of ‘being cultured’, ‘culture vulture’, ‘doing something cultural’ etc., as opposed to more anthropological senses of the word) in our globalised, networked, multinational era, we are touching on a popular ideology of ‘cultural communism’, as opposed to the accumulation of ‘cultural capital’, or ‘cultural capitalism’. Now that the possibility of equal distribution of wealth/capital has been taken off the (official) agenda, good liberals are working hard to displace such ideals into the increasingly codified (imaginary) marketplace of cultural value/exchange/capital.

One of the dreams of postmodernism was applying relative exchange values to all ‘Culture’, in order to open up the cultural marketplace to everyone, not just those privileged enough to have access to ‘high culture’ (via education and knowledge, not money of course, that’d be crass economic determinism). The political value of such a project can only be assessed in relation to a real investigation of what ‘cultural capital’ actually amounts to, relative to ‘material’ capital. To what extent does this ‘knowledge’ equate to power, and power to wealth or happiness or domination? Culture, in this country at least, has been wholly commodified; it is something that is consciously made and consumed, something other than life (leisure? work?) that we can assess and enter into and partake of as if we were all anthropologists of ourselves. It has traded in much of its traditional value as ‘art’ and functions ‘officially’ as cultural currency, but unlike ‘actual’ currency, this is a currency that we want to be distributed equitably.

When liberals talk about elitism, it is in the language of ‘social mobility’ and of class identity being determined by cultural tastes and activities rather than the other way around. Elitism is the ‘unfair’ stockpiling of cultural capital, or of a monopoly on value or meaning, in a symbolic realm in which (unlike the socio-economic realm) ‘unfairness’ really doesn’t seem to make sense. It makes no difference to us that ‘cultural capital’, as recognised, treated and used in that manner, cannot be distributed equally, because it would then lose all its function as capital – it would no longer be able to ‘produce’ surplus power or respect or authority or authenticity.

The equitable distribution of cultural capital – of knowledge, understanding and access to various art forms – has become one of the most bizarre yet tenacious projects of official liberal democracy in the new millennium. It obviously takes its cue from identity politics in the 70s and 80s, from the fight for representation and the deconstruction of value systems and canons. It takes some inspiration from historic reformist movements in art, towards accessibility and understanding, sometimes centred on class struggle (making art to educate/agitate the workers), sometimes centred on moralism or paternalism (making art to civilise the urban poor or colonials). But, post-poststructuralism, in a world in which (arguably) nobody has more cultural capital than Beyoncé Knowles – a (rich) black woman – and you’d find yourself with a bounty on your YouTube avatar if you were ever to suggest that HBO dramas/street art/video games/Harry Potter didn’t really qualify as ‘art’, the state-sponsored, vehemently-upheld crusade of ‘access’ to the arts has become a particularly strange project.

[This complements Paulo Virno’s final thesis, in Grammar of the Multitude, on the recontitution of the subjectivity of Western labour post-1968:

‘Post-Fordism is the “communism of Capital”‘   

Elitism, Universality and Cultural Entrepreneurship

In a way then, I can’t blame the opera industry for being confused. They’re being told that the very validity of their art form depends on its ability to be exchanged on the free market of prescribed Culture. They’ve inherited this situation for the twin reasons that a) the art form costs a lot of money and expects a lot of public subsidy, and b) they were certainly emblematic of that ‘high culture’ paradigm that took such a beating by identity politics in the 70s and 80s (and, unlike other disciplines, they didn’t really adapt by opening up a rich parallel tradition of feminist or postcolonial or radical queer opera). So opera is particularly vulnerable to the shifting ideologies of state cultural policy, which is currently wrapped up in the aforementioned dream of the cultural free-market (which is, we must remember, an ‘anti-elitist’ mechanism), perversely taking its logic from the dream of ‘cultural communism’ which – through its fantasy of a (national) cultural commons (which may or may not relate to fascist ideas of Volksgemeinschaft) – will help naturalise the horrendous socio-economic inequalities ripping through society.

Compare this situation to something like rapping and UK rap music. Sure, rap music doesn’t have a central institution to target, and it’s not really taking state money. But moreover, it is accepted as a form of cultural expression particular to a certain racial (and, although decreasingly, socio-economic) group. No-one is calling for greater (or universal) outreach and access to rap music, that would be ridiculous and not a little offensive. It’s important as a cultural form that empowers a marginalised section of society, even as other (more material) sources of power are withheld from that group. And it certainly isn’t labelled as ‘elitist’.

In introducing this analogy, I’m not arguing that rapping and rap music should be subject to the same demands as opera. I want to suggest that it helps us understand better the real nature of opera’s ‘elitism’. As mentioned before, ‘elitism’ – as it pertains to culture – cannot really be understood as an empirically quantifiable phenomenon, in the manner of wealth inequality, but is more a social consensus, made manifest in public discourse. It is, moreover, a term used as a tool in order to express some idea about who should be engaging in a certain institution, or what that institution should be achieving. Rap music isn’t called ‘elitist’, even if it is a particular minority (?) who enjoy/understand it, and an even more particular minority who have ‘permission’ to take part in its creation. Opera, however, is called ‘elitist’ all the time, which suggests that more is expected from it. There is an expectation that it should be understood by everyone, that it should be open to everyone to be consumed on an equal footing, or accessed for career prospects or the particular release of self-expression.

[Obviously there are other considerations at work: the ‘elite’ minority who enjoy/make opera are historically more wealthy and socially powerful that the minority who enjoy/make rap music. Opera also has a much much smaller audience than rap music, but this has a lot to do with digital reproduction, with corporate funding, distribution and publicity, and private enterprise in general. More significantly, the commercial potential of rap music production, its creation of profit and its valuable narratives of entrepreneurship, social mobility and individualism, ‘prove’ its value within the neoliberal ideology in a way that opera cannot. If ‘popular’ art forms like rap music, and ‘high’ art forms like opera are to enter the cultural commons on an equal footing, they both need to ‘expand’ in different directions, with the commercial model of pop music proliferation fitting more easily into the neoliberal logic of the age. But these details are totally repressed within the logic of ‘cultural communism’, of universal access to all Culture, for which money is an archaic, embarrassing or irrelevant extraneity.]

The curious fact remains that, for all the force of the discourse of cultural relativism – the utopian equity between club nights and stand up comedy and ballet and conceptual art and flower shows in Time Out magazine – there is a sense that opera is still expected to communicate universally (i.e. ‘everyone has the potential to be moved by it’), in a way that rap music is not. And it is this assumption, of its innate potential for universal communication, and of its essential possession (as a whole genre, not on a basis of individual works or of individual performances) of rare and universally-desired experiences and expressions of beauty and truth, which makes it more elitist than rap music.

I think it’s then possible to conclude that:

1) if the Royal Opera House has indeed ‘proven’ that it isn’t institutionally elitist (i.e. it isn’t more actively exclusive than any other artistic institution), then the opera itself can’t be said to communicate universally (or, if it can still be said to communicate, what is being communicated (truth? beauty?) cannot be deemed to be universally worth receiving, or universally worth spending money and time in order to receive).

Or adversely:

2) if the opposite is true and opera is both able to communicate universally and has something to be communicated which is universally deemed worth receiving, then the Royal Opera House must be significantly institutionally elitist. Where else would this pernicious ‘elitist’ myth have come from?

Trickle-Down Culture

The above is all largely playful ‘devil’s advocacy’. As I said, the ‘E’-word is an ideologically-charged term used to obfuscate the nature of class relations, the contingency of ‘Culture’ itself (which is most definitely not some rational-technical field of professional production that can be wholly assessed, shaped, tweaked and then consumed), and the political responsibilities of art. Concepts such as cultural relativism, the rationale of state cultural policy and funding, and the culture industry (not to mention artistic value and meaning) are all deeply problematic.

For one thing, what I’ve called the dream of ‘cultural communism’, the radical logic of ‘equal aesthetic rights‘ which relates to notions of web-based communism, the networked multitude, horizontality and the Open Source movement, has no real relation to current UK trends in cultural access and outreach. As with other ideas of communism, the fundamental alienation involved in the conversion into exchange value, the universal presence of money, of the ‘monetisation’ of cultural discourse and the burgeoning reliance on private funding, necessarily dooms the project. But I maintain that this ideology, in collusion with the mystifying/moralising tendencies of cultural/artistic discourse, underpins the logic of UK cultural policy. In this way, we aim to be able to sell experience, jouissance, social relations, truth, beauty and even ‘humanity’ as those extra commodities which are so obviously needed to supplement the material commodities which we once thought would bring us satisfaction, in order to complete the perfectly rationalised loop of a free-market economy of human happiness.

But the success of this project relies on a particular (elite?) group of culture-makers, who remain in control of the distribution of meaning. Cultural consumers need to know that what they are buying is beauty, truth, humanity etc., otherwise they might still find themselves unfulfilled. This would not be possible in the dream of ‘cultural communism’; people would be inventing and reinventing values and meanings left, right and centre, without any hierarchy of authority. Instead, it requires a good old-fashioned ‘trickle-down economics’ of Culture, with a universally-validated group of meaning-makers (cultural capitalists) designating this or that as meaningful, fulfilling, beautiful etc, and then filtering it down to everyone else with meaning/value intact. And this begins with the very statement that ‘Culture’ per se is somehow ‘good’ or ‘improving’.

This is an old project for sure – the essence of a paternalist ‘high culture’ paradigm – and is complicated both by the real action of private enterprise on cultural meaning (in mass culture) and by more genuinely ‘communistic’ models of cultural exchange (i.e. YouTube – if you can ignore its wholesale exploitation by Google). I can’t necessarily stake out my position on any particular ‘side’, because I have my own ideas about what kind of ‘art’ needs to be made in order to ameliorate positive change in the world, and it is one which certainly assumes some temporary authority over a medium and affirms its imminent truth content. This ‘avant-garde’ approach certainly qualifies for its own charges of elitism, yet it is the more powerful and prevalent ‘elitism’ of trickle-down Culture within an ideological framework of ‘cultural communism’ that is more serious and dangerous. This is because it manages to achieve the political goal of systematic censorship and effective preclusion of new radical art.

Prescribed Universality and Censorship

The ideology that all art must have a single universal message that is equally legible to everyone at the same register, no matter of differing backgrounds, education and politics – the necessary proviso of a universally-accessible Culture – is a calculated political move towards censoring politically effective, radical art. It is tantamount to agreeing on what new art can mean before it is made, and then making sure that only a) the requisite new art is made, or b) only the pre-arranged meaning is sensible. It has effectively achieved the proscription of the creation of all new critical art completely, hence the dire situation that we currently find ourselves in, where any resistance to the Tory class war and the accelerating course of alienation is effectively rationalised away.

The sad fact about rap music (and all commercially-distributed pop music), which reaches its widest audience through the processes of private enterprise and the market, is that any radicalism is automatically censored away through this process, through prolonged contact with branding, marketing and spectacle. The danger of publically-funded art is that it still has the potential to be radical on a big budget, so this quasi-market system of commodified culture, under the faux-liberal ideology of ‘cultural communism’ and total access, has become an effective way to recreate the innate censorship of the market without the controversy of removing state arts funding.

The Elitism of Not Taking It Seriously

While opera has, in theory, the capacity to resist such trends, the way it is set up (both institutionally and ideologically) leaves it particularly vulnerable to them. The catastrophe, for me, is that this po-faced working over of the totally meaningless concept of ‘elitism’ is used in place of a real discussion of the imperatives of opera as art form, and its relation to class, to truth, to spectacle, to the culture industry, to society etc. The mainstream media have hegemony over the discourse of art these days. The opera house is, no doubt, forbidden to let anyone onto their live streamed debates with opinions about Adorno or Badiou – it would be deemed ‘inaccessible’ (maybe even ‘elitist’), which just goes to show how perfectly the discourse reproduces itself.

I was galled by Mark-Anthony Turnage’s tenacity in suggesting that this discourse around opera, and the charge of ‘elitism’, was a symptom of dangerous ‘anti-intellectualism’ in Britain. This is true, of course, but the event itself was a perfect manifestation of this – one of the most patronising, anti-intellectual ‘debates’ that I’ve ever witnessed. Katie Mitchell’s aggravating recourse to her childhood experiences, and the endless parading of the children’s choir, patronisingly equated the hoped-for audience for this video (opera skeptics and newcomers) with children (bright colours, magical effects – if they love it, then you can too – opera is so magical!!). There was no real attempt to talk about opera as art; it was instead represented as spectacle, or entertainment, or ‘experience’. (This was particularly saddening in Mitchell’s case, because her recent production of Written in Skin so obviously displayed a much more sophisticated conception of the possibilities and aims of the art form).

This was the country’s most important, heavily-subsidised and respected opera institution, and one of its most respected newspapers, hosting a debate which they actually say (on the website) will bring ‘serious debate to the heart of the Covent Garden’. SERIOUS debate. And they don’t bother to get one academic on the panel (what else are academics for??), and the only person they engage to argue ‘for’ the motion is someone who knows next to nothing about the genre/institution because they hate it so much. This is what the ROH (and the Telegraph) thinks is ‘serious’. This is what the ROH thinks a ‘serious’ discussion of opera looks like. It all brings me back to my previous assertions that opera makers do not take opera ‘seriously’.

The Elitism of Panel Discussions

For all the impotence of the discussion, they did manage to answer the ‘big question’ as far as I’m concerned – although it wasn’t the answer that they themselves arrived at. If there can be such a charge as elitism, and if opera can be implicated in such a charge, it must surely be as an art form whose definition and meaning is safeguarded by a very small, insular number of centralised institutions – opera houses, conservatoires and arts desks – who can then hold debates in order to tell the rest of society why they’re wrong. Opera’s elitism comes from those who think they can designate what ‘opera’ looks and sounds like, how long it should be, where it should happen, how much it should cost, and who should be able to enjoy/understand it (even if the answer to the latter is ‘everyone’). Most of all though, opera’s elitism comes from those who think they can designate what opera means, what it should mean, how it should function, what it can and can’t do or try to do, and what value new works can/should have in relation to the old canons.

Herein we see the operation of cultural capitalism – the accruement of power over meaning which the whole panel (except the one dissenter) had accumulated – which is supposedly meant to be deconstructed through universal access (so that anyone is able to make ‘authentic’ opera). But if we all really felt full ‘ownership’ of opera as an art form, in a manner much more like ‘our’ relationship to independent pop/dance music or YouTube, opera would lose a lot of its residual ‘high culture’ mythology, as well as its claims on special forms of truth and beauty. ‘Accessing’ opera would then no longer be about sharing in an ideal ’emotional’ or ‘spiritual’ or ‘human’ experience, of the kind that all opera is supposed to aim for (although in practicality, a lot of opera has no intention of producing), it would merely be an exploration of the possibilities of sung theatre. This would be the ‘lowest common denominator’ which Turnage feared.

For all the lip service paid, I don’t really believe that these institutions, artists and critics have any interest in relinquishing their power over the institution’s hegemonic discourse. Hence the continual replaying of the old repertoire in the same way, within the same discursive context, hence the rehearsing of aristocratic signifiers which somehow entrench a sense of inherited knowledge/power, hence the conservatism, the self-curating and the canonising, hence the anti-intellectualism (resisting the lessons of progressive philosophy and political thought beyond the ideologies of the last few Romantic philosophers), hence the ghettoising of new music and the reticence to learn anything from contemporary theatre or popular music. Hence, in a phrase, the endurance of the ‘trickle-down’ mentality.

This attitude is made abundantly clear in the debate, when Crompton tries to reverse the meaning of ‘elitism’ to be ‘a good thing’ (Olympic sportspeople are elite because they’re the best of the best, and that’s a good thing, so why should we be ashamed, etc etc). The panel begin to talk, bare-facedly, about the ‘elite’ singers, musicians, designers and directors at the ROH, and the fact that they’re making the best opera in the world, and that they’re at the top of their ‘game’, and that should be something to be celebrated. Besides the fact that a lot of the opera I’ve seen at the ROH has been pointless boring dross – if at the top of any game then a game that has absolutely no reason to exist – this is the crux of elitism, the total arrogance of broadcasting a ‘serious’ debate in the name of access and outreach which does nothing but state that if such a thing as opera does exist then the Royal Opera House must naturally be its apotheosis.

The real tragedy for the ROH is that their project is doomed to failure too. Just like trickle-down economics, the trickle-down culture model – of keeping meaning/value centralised and pure and codified – cannot be reconciled with any genuine idea of fairness and equality (i.e. the dream that all children will have equal access to take part in and create opera). Very quickly, meanings will be adapted, hybridised and adjusted – which is the very nature of a decentralised notion of meaning-creation – and then will come the conservative complaints about ‘quality’, ‘dumbing down’ and ‘preservation of the art form’ which all popular co-options of traditional genres entail. The ROH can’t have its access-cake and eat it. They either open the genre up for everyone to understand, interpret, hijack and mutate as they see fit, or they retain ownership of the art form which is their bequest from history, along with its accompanying discourse of emotion, beauty, tradition and value. But they cannot then complain when people throw accusations of ‘elitism’ at them.


So opera is ‘elitist’, perhaps, but I think ‘elitist’ is too weak. If we were to take opera, and its future, as seriously as it seems to want to be taken, then it wouldn’t be too strong to say that exercises like the ROH’s debate are violent attempts to naturalise culture in a way which places certain people in positions of great power, helps to validate their opinions, agendas and interests while silencing the opinions of others, censoring radicalism, silencing dissent, and bolstering a social system in which a vast majority is exploited by a tiny minority, to the overwhelming detriment of everyone involved. Something that the term ‘elitism’ doesn’t really capture.

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One Response to Opera, ‘Elitism’ and Trickle-Down Culture

  1. Pingback: The Ideology of Opera Creation |

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